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Return to Cairo of his youth leaves Toronto professor racked with guilt

Kamal Al-Solaylee and family at the Kasr el Nile Casino, 1972. Kamal is on far left.

I was about to pass through the metal detector at a departure gate at Cairo International Airport last summer when two security guards stopped me. I was sure I had cleared my pockets of all loose change and I wasn't wearing a belt with a brass buckle. What was going on?

Was it my destination: Beirut? Was I on some no-fly list? Was I to be dragged into an investigation room and subjected to some, let's say, persuasive techniques?

Seconds later, I figured it out. Even at this maximum-security prison of an airport, you can't board your plane before tipping the guards. It's "breakfast money," the more senior of the two told me with a smile.

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I gave up. I was tired and irritable and in no mood to talk to them in Arabic or English. It had been a long and emotionally draining week in Cairo and I just wanted to get out. I handed over 10 Egyptian pounds and asked them to split it - which worked out to less than $1 each.

Still, as I sat in the lounge and waited for the boarding call, I couldn't help but be sympathetic to their situation. I even thought of going back and shoving another 10-pound note in the guard's pocket. I can't imagine a security guard in Cairo making more than the equivalent of $100 a month and it's no longer the cheap place it used to be.

It's no longer anything I remember as a child and teen who lived there in the 1970s and early 1980s with my expatriate Yemeni family. I grew up just one bridge and main thoroughfare away from Tahrir Square, the scene of unprecedented protests this week by Egyptians who want more than what the current government of President Hosni Mubarak was able to deliver in three decades of power and corruption.

I was a 17-year-old high-school student when Mr. Mubarak came to power in 1981 following the assassination of President Anwar Sadat. During my visit last summer, I was torn between my memories of this once-peaceful and welcoming city - I still love watching YouTube videos of old Egyptian musicals - and the realities I confronted every day.

It's not like I could pretend not to see the widening gaps between the haves and have-nothings. Today's Cairo is opulent in some parts and depressingly poor in others just one neighbourhood over. There are malls that make Toronto's Eaton Centre look like a rundown plaza and many five-star hotels that feature ravishingly good restaurants and bars where Cairo's economic elites and visiting Arabs spend millions everyday.

Still, I'm more taken aback by the many kids on the streets in my old neighbourhood of Zamalek - once an enclave of Cairo's elite and expatriates - who followed me everywhere and tried to sell me fresh mint and lemon. Despite my plan of passing myself off as a local, these kids had my number from the moment I came into view. Something about the clothes I was wearing, the shoes and perhaps the courier bag gave me away as an outsider with money and privilege.

I am an outsider now. I speak the language and understand the issues that Egyptians are protesting against - high food prices, unemployment, wage disparity - but can offer nothing more than reflections and memories.

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My earliest memory is of Cairo in 1972, mere months after my family moved there from that other tarnished capital, Beirut. It was a tradition with middle-class families in Cairo to take the younger children out for lunch or soft drinks on Muslim holidays. It was a chore to get all dolled up - brand-new clothes and shoes - and sit for an hour or two in what Egyptians call "casinos," which are really outdoor restaurants and watering holes overlooking the Nile. We'd hail a cab, sail through Tahrir Street and be at the casino in 10 minutes. On the way home, we'd stop at local bookstores and spend our holiday money on comic books.

I can't imagine many middle-class Egyptian families keeping up the tradition today. While cabs are plentiful, traffic is congested beyond reason and the cost of a meal in one of these places is the equivalent of a teacher's monthly salary. In fact, the first thing I noticed in Cairo was the erosion of the middle classes - the well-educated, shabby genteel intelligentsia of Egyptian society who were our friends and neighbours. And family.

My sister, Fardia, married an Egyptian in 1980 and still lives in the same rented two-bedroom apartment with her now-retired husband and two children in their mid-to-late 20s. I can't imagine the kind of pressure my first visit to Cairo in nearly 18 years put on her budget as she insisted that I have lunch at her place almost every day.

My niece is now an English teacher in the same school where she (and I) once studied and my nephew works for a French bank. And yet what they make is barely enough to keep the (literally) falling roof over their heads.

I'm racked with guilt and try to offer to pay for food when my sister nearly cries from pride and embarrassment. I insist on giving her $200 (U.S.) as a thank-you for which she was reluctant but, eventually, forced to accept.

I - who was just about to move from my condo in Toronto's Yorkville and into a bigger one in Forest Hill - still struggle with this divide between myself and my own flesh and blood in Cairo. I often tell my friends in Toronto that I won the two biggest lotteries in life when I went to study in Britain and when I landed an immigrant visa to Canada. My Cairo more than ever now seems like several lifetimes away.

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I hope something tangible comes out of the current protests but deep down I realize that this is only the beginning of a long and possibly bloody road to economic and social recovery.

Kamal Al-Solaylee is a former theatre critic for The Globe and Mail and is an assistant professor of journalism at Ryerson University.

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